Around-the-world travel isn't just for the young or the independently wealthy. Students, retirees and even working folks with a few weeks of vacation time can take advantage of the convenient pricing and flexibility of around-the-world tickets. You can travel around the world for nearly any length of time, from a few days to a few years. Your trip can involve a couple of brief stops or dozens of stopovers and side trips.
And it needn't cost as much as you might think: Economy-class fares for the most basic around-the-world itineraries start around $1,500.
An around-the-world ticket is a special fare (or a series of point-to-point tickets) that allows you to fly to multiple cities and continents. These tickets are sold through airline alliances and agencies that specialize in around-the-world travel, and they can help you save money and organize your itinerary. Read on for a run-down on where to buy your tickets, how they work and what they cost.
When to consider an around-the-world ticket
Around-the-world tickets are not only ideal for travelers planning 15 different stops on six continents; they could also save you money on shorter multi-city trips, particularly in business or first class.
For instance, in a recent search, we found a business-class flight on American Airlines from Los Angeles to Hong Kong for $7,857 (before taxes); a flight from Los Angeles to London was $3,687.50. But a three-continent around-the-world fare in business class from Oneworld — the airline alliance to which American belongs — would only cost an estimated $7,500 plus taxes, and allow you to fly from Los Angeles to both Europe and Asia in one trip. By buying a global ticket and coordinating appointments, an executive with clients in both Hong Kong and London could save a bundle.
Consider an around-the-world ticket if you're traveling to multiple continents within the same trip. (If you're focusing on a single continent, an air pass may be a better bet.) Plot out your preferred countries or cities, along with a rough idea of how long you'd like to spend in each place, and then turn to one of the providers listed below for help in planning your itinerary.
Who offers around-the-world tickets?
There are two main types of around-the-world ticket providers: airlines and specialist agencies.
Airlines: The three global airline alliances allow you to link together the routes of any member airlines to create one continuous global trip. Each alliance offers at least one around-the-world ticket option.
Fares are calculated based on the total mileage of your trip or the number of continents you visit. You are permitted anywhere from 3 to 15 stopovers in a period of 10 days to a year. You will typically need to reserve the first leg of your journey in advance, but after that you may leave your travel dates open. There may be restrictions on which direction you can travel (some fares require that you travel only in a single direction, either east to west or vice versa), or how many miles you can fly.
One advantage of booking your around-the-world ticket through an airline alliance is that you'll be eligible to earn frequent flier miles toward the airline loyalty program of your choice.
Information about around-the-world tickets on each alliance can be found in the following links:
Specialist agencies: Many of these agencies are consolidators who can piece together point-to-point one-way tickets that undercut the lowest economy fares from the airline alliances. However, tickets from these consolidators usually will not earn frequent flier miles.
You will find that around-the-world fares through these agencies begin at about $1,500, which is a very basic New York - London - Hong Kong - New York ticket. Rather than selling you a single around-the-world ticket, the agency will ask you where you want to stop, then issue you a series of point-to-point tickets. Most flights depart from major U.S. gateways, so if you live near a smaller airport, you will need to pay extra for a connecting flight.
Here are several agencies that specialize in around-the-world tickets:
Editor's note: While we have had great experiences with some of the companies listed above, this is a cutthroat business with very small margins. Please take the same precautions you would in buying a ticket from an around-the-world specialist as you would from a consolidator, preferably charging your tickets on a credit card and confirming all reservations/seat assignments with the airlines directly.
What to consider when purchasing
Flexibility: This may be the single most important factor in the success of your trip. Want the option to stick around New Zealand for an extra two weeks, or to fly to Bangkok instead of Beijing? Be sure to read the terms and conditions carefully before you book your around-the-world ticket. Ask what reservations need to be confirmed ahead of time, how easily you can alter your original dates or itinerary, and what change fees may apply. Keep in mind that flexibility may often come with higher fares, so you'll need to weigh your budget against your travel plans.
Class: For many travelers, flying first or business class is usually well out of their price range — but if you've got a little cushion in your travel budget, consider whether it's worth spending the extra money to buy an around-the-world ticket in business class. Flying long distances and living on the road for an extended period of time can be hard on your body, and you may be surprised at how much you appreciate that relaxing flight in a spacious airline seat when you've been on the go for four months straight. And the price difference between economy and business class on around-the-world tickets might be less than you'd imagine.
Alternatives: If money is a concern, keep in mind that using your around-the-world ticket may not always be the most economical option for getting from point A to point B. For shorter segments of your trip, check the local train or bus services as well as any discount airlines that operate in the region. They may take a little more planning and coordination, but these alternatives could save you some cash.